#84 Walkers & Whales & WWI, Oh My! An Interview with Keith Thompson, Illustrator For the Leviathan Trilogy

To tie-in with our July GOLIATH giveaway, I’ve had the pleasure recently to connect with Keith Thompson, the illustrator for Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy. He’s a freelance artist based in Canada and has designed for a range of projects in publishing, video games and film; his past projects include Nissan, Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming film Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and the sadly-cancelled At the Mountains of Madness project. His art has been described as being like a “Victorian anime” by Scott and also as pretty “fantastic and surreal.

Click after the jump for our interview.

Welcome to Beyond Victoriana! To start off, would you mind talking a bit about your professional background?

Thanks, good to be here! I took art pretty seriously at a relatively young age and started freelancing in highschool. Went to Sheridan College to study illustration and started working full time as an artist as soon as I graduated which was a bit over 6 years ago. Written 3 books, illustrated many more, designed on 4 AAA games and 5 feature films.

Scott mentioned that he specifically hired you to illustrate the Leviathan trilogy. How did you both meet?

Scott approached me after seeing my art somewhere (I think floating around online.) A big part of it was my having a foot firmly planted in both organic and mechanical aesthetics, which is obviously a key theme of the Leviathan series. First time I met him in person was on a book signing for Leviathan.

Did you have any idea what steampunk was before you started working on this trilogy?

Sure. Anything I’d worked on that’s set in that time period basically fits the classification. The game Recoil: Retrograd was steampunk, and there’s another game I’ve designed that’s still confidential (and I understand is now on hold.)

Can you speak about the process of working with Scott? He had mentioned at various interviews how the experience was very much a collaborative one.

I like to think of it as a wonderfully old fashioned and Edwardian way of going about an illustrated book. The correspondence was dominantly written. Scott would either mention loosely what was planned ahead of time, or send drafts of future chapters. I would sketch up depictions and describe details on how things could work out. Upon consensus the writing and art would solidify further independently, but would both end up matching upon finalisation. The process seemed to form very naturally and quickly and lasted unchanged for 3 years.

In the Leviathan trilogy, the characters travel all over the world: from England & the Austrian countryside to the Ottoman Empire, and in Goliath, even to Japan and New York City. What resources did you find helpful when researching all of these different places?

Luckily all of those locations were so historically significant it was relatively easy to find a wealth of details and research on them. A much larger amount of photography exists than one might expect for the time, and while invaluable, it was the artwork that often showed more essence. Art and illustration in the time was still a real discipline and craft, and would touch down upon every aspect of society. The boiled down essence of something in a good drawing can tell me (from the position of a century later) far more about senses of aesthetics, fashion, and class than what I can piece together from a straight photograph. Often another very telling thing was how the artwork would show the people of the time in how they saw themselves and wished themselves to be. Surprisingly the art also showed very vivid hidden sides of the times; the horror of the war, and the cruel social inequality. There was such skill with visual metaphor and allegory that I think the art was able to show more truth than we realise they could have gotten away with. The photography, in all of its hazy drabness and shallowness, exposed a literal shot, but so much less of the time; often only a sliver that helped confirm insights found in the drawings.

What’s a factoid about Edwardian culture that you weren’t aware of before working on these books? 

I think the importance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was something I got much more perspective on from research on this book. It’s amazing how such huge structures that define a world can dissolve and be forgotten so completely (and seemingly often by their own doing.)

Who is your favorite character to draw and why?

Probably Deryn. I’m very pleased with how much her androgynous character came out seemingly fully formed (the first depiction was the full colour portrait.) They’ve both aged a bit (in their countenance and how their faces read from everything they’ve experience rather than the passage of time), but Alek especially so. He’s more fun to look back on for that reason.

Your style has been compared to a Victorian manga/anime – are you a fan of Japanese anime at all?

Yes certainly. I hungrily collect artwork from as many different cultures as I can, and Japan is a significant source. Manga has been a influence on my own style but I think it’s as much to do with the sharing of artistic sources. Massive influences on me from Edwardian European illustration like Harry Clarke and Kay Nielson would mostly fit into manga stylisation in today’s context.

What are your other artistic inspirations?

A safe bet is any artwork from any culture in the world provided it predates World War I (though I omit much of the progressive movements right near the end like Impressionism and Cubism, etc.)

What is your favorite medium to work in?

Ink. I haven’t worked in ink in a long time. There’s seemingly little interest in good ink work now that colour printing and media is so accessible. Plus I also feel that digital work is quite good at simulating ink.

What are you currently working on now?

I’m putting the finishing touches on the fourth book in the Leviathan series. A full colour collection of artwork that details all of the different things floating through the trilogy’s world. I’m also designing some feature films. More news on that will be announced in the future.

What three pieces of advice can you give to an aspiring illustrator?

1. Travel back in time.
2. Be born into a well off family.
3. Work like crazy and illustrate!
I wouldn’t recommend any other route.

Where else can our readers find your work? 

Please always just check my website: www.keiththompsonart.com It’s the only venue I have complete creative control over and should be the first and central point of reference for anyone interested in my art.

Finally, which technology do you prefer: Clanker or Darwinist?

Oh, Clanker without a doubt. Darwinist cultures would be far too cruel to endure. I assume they may get around it by reawakening old medieval concepts of animals only mimicking feelings via estimativa. It’s not just a war time condition either; Black Beauty is a great classic that could be told from within a Darwinist type setting.

The Clanker/Darwinist split is a fun binary extension of how WWI was fought by both sides, and we tend to forget the huge amount of animals that were used in both World Wars. Over 8 million horses and mules died in the war. There was no intention of bringing most of the survivors back home once the war was won; after making it through everything they were finally sent to slaughter houses to be butchered. There’s a great bit from All Quiet on the Western Front: “We sit down and hold our ears. But this appalling noise, these groans and screams penetrate, they penetrate everywhere. We can almost bare anything. But now the sweat breaks out on us. We must get up and run no matter where, but where these cries can no longer be heard. And it is not men, only horses.”

That gives another take on moral combat & war, doesn’t it? (I’d prefer a mechanical elephant any day for my ride of choice. ) Thanks again for your insights, and for stopping by the blog, Keith. 

Readers, you still have time to enter our GOLIATH giveaway (Note: our Goliath winner’s been announced here but you can still donate to win more cool prizes), check out Keith’s art and upcoming projects on his website.

1 Comment

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One response to “#84 Walkers & Whales & WWI, Oh My! An Interview with Keith Thompson, Illustrator For the Leviathan Trilogy

  1. Red

    great to hear that there will be a 4th book too.

    The illustrations really are really important to enjoying the stories. As much as I love my e-reader, I will likely be buying the hardcopy books, so I can lend them out.

    great interview.